Good Night Shirt wrapped up the steeplechase Eclipse Award months ago; Sonny Via's champion aims for perfection Sunday, when he starts as a heavy favorite in the Grade I Colonial Cup. The $150,000 contest anchors the 39th Marion du Pont Scott Colonial Cup meeting, the penultimate stop on the NSA schedule. Held at the historic Springdale Race Course in Camden, S.C., the meet offers $240,000 in total purses and often attracts crowds in excess of 15,000.
Many of those will be coming to see 2007 champion Good Night Shirt, who has done little wrong in four 2008 starts for Jack Fisher. The 7-year-old son of Concern has already broken the single-season earnings record he set last year and is a perfect 4-for-4 on the season — all Grade I tallies. He enters on the heels of five straight Grade I scores, a streak that started in the 2007 Colonial Cup.
Good Night Shirt's victory over McDynamo in last year's Colonial Cup clinched the Eclipse Award and signaled a changing of the guard in the sport. McDynamo retired immediately after that race, and Good Night Shirt entered 2008 as the heir apparent. He has yet to disappoint.
Good Night Shirt started the year with a win in the Georgia Cup at Atlanta in April and then headed to Nashville and won his second consecutive Iroquois in May. After his usual summer freshening he returned Sept. 21 to win the Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park for the second straight year and answered any doubts about his ability to handle Far Hills with an easy 4-length win in the Grand National Oct. 18.
Once known for his propensity to err over at least one hurdle during a race, Good Night Shirt has turned into a polished professional in 2008. His competition can no longer expect the champ to give them a second or third chance. The results have been devastating, as Good Night Shirt has won his four races by a combined 13 3/4 lengths this year, while leaving plenty in the tank each time. Fisher has been more than impressed.
"With the way he's run this year I don't really know where there's room for improvement. You can say he is a better this year if you want, but he did run very well last year," Fisher said. "Some people might have had a few questions about him at Far Hills, but I never did. Last year he just got beat by a better horse on that day (McDynamo), but then he rebounded to win the Colonial Cup and we're looking forward to trying to win it again on Sunday."
Last year in the Colonial Cup Good Night Shirt set the pace, maintained a measured 1-length lead through much of the running, dueled late and then drew off late to score by 2 1/4 lengths. The Colonial Cup is contested over natural brush fences, which are larger and taller than the standard National Fence. The 2 3/4-mile race has 17 hurdles in all, and Fisher enters knowing he doesn't have to worry about Good Night Shirt making the adjustment.
"It's nice to know he's handled those fences well in the past and I think that's to our advantage," Fisher said. "I've schooled him myself a few times since the Grand National and he'll have one more school over the Cup fences on Saturday morning and we'll be ready to go."
Willie Dowling, Good Night Shirt's regular jockey for the past two years, once again has the call. All horses carry 156 pounds under the race's weight-for-age conditions.
Good Night Shirt's recent dominance scared off all but the hardiest competitors, and only four horses signed on for the challenge. Peggy Steinman's Dark Equation poses the biggest threat. The 7-year-old son of Polish Numbers took home the prestigious Grade I New York Turf Writers at Saratoga this August and has been freshened by Doug Fout since running fifth behind Good Night Shirt in the Lonesome Glory. Dark Equation encountered stretch traffic at Belmont and couldn't get clear in his run to the wire. While little went right that day Fout is optimistic entering Sunday's rematch.
"I'm not saying he would have won the race at Belmont, but he sure would have been second and we would have made Good Night Shirt keep on running," Fout said. "The break after the Lonesome Glory was by design, as far back as after he won at Saratoga, we never even thought of going to Far Hills. I think it's going to benefit him a lot and I look forward to taking another crack at Good Night Shirt."
Dark Equation prepped for the Colonial Cup with an impressive win in a 1 1/2-mile training flat race at Montpelier Nov. 1, when he was an easy 2 1/4-length winner while never being asked by regular jockey Matt McCarron, who has the return call at Camden. Dark Equation impressed Fout that day, and in the days since.
"The race at Montpelier was a great run to get him to Camden. He was smokin' out there. He was running off with Matt and that's what I like to see," Fout said. "He came out of it good and happy — and most importantly sound — and we're ready to roll."
Dark Equation has yet to race over the Colonial Cup fences, but Fout isn't a big believer in schooling his horses right on top of a race, so Dark Equation will have to adjust on the fly. The pattern has worked before.
"I'm not too worried about it because I did the same thing with Hirapour and he won the race over Sur La Tete and McDynamo in 2004," Fout said. "Once they jump it for the first time and get over it they're fine, and I don't think it will be any different on Sunday."
Polaris Stable's Preemptive Strike (Jody Petty) hasn't missed a beat in two fall starts since returning from a long layoff. The always dangerous front-runner won Aiken's Imperial Cup in flag-to-wire fashion this March, then missed seven months with a leg injury. The Sanna Hendriks trainee returned to finish a fine third (he was moved up to second via a disqualification) in the Appleton at Far Hills and third, beaten three quarters of a length in the Noel Laing at Montpelier.
A relentless 10-year-old son of Roanoke, Preemptive Strike, has the talent to compete with the sport's best — he defeated the legendary McDynamo by 5 lengths in the Grade II Somerset at the Meadowlands back in 2005. The multiple graded-stakes winner is a major danger on the front end whenever he shows up and finished second behind Hirapour (and ahead of Sur La Tete and McDynamo) in this race in 2004.
Best Attack (Paddy Young to ride) was third in the Grand National, the same spot he finished in 2007 for Sally Radcliffe and Bruce Miller. The 7-year-old son of Bahri was a Grade II winner as a novice and has shown high promise since graduating to the open ranks, as evidenced by his second to Good Night Shirt in the Iroquois and third in the Lonesome Glory and also third in the Grade I Royal Chase this spring at Keeneland.
Pleasant Pick (no rider named) rounds out the compact Colonial Cup field for High Hope Stables and Arch Kingsley. The 9-year-old son of Piccolino is winless in 12 hurdle starts since taking a Tyron claimer in April 2007.
The Colonial Cup field (with jockey, trainer and owner):
Dark Equation (Matt McCarron, Doug Fout, Peggy Steinman)
Good Night Shirt (Willie Dowling, Jack Fisher, Sonny Via)
Preemptive Strike (Jody Petty, Sanna Hendriks, Polaris Stables)
Best Attack (Paddy Young, Bruce Miller, Sally Radcliffe)
Pleasant Pick (no rider, Arch Kingsley, High Hope Stables)
All horses will carry 156 pounds.
WOOLFE COULD CROWN 3-YEAR-OLD CHAMP
Mede Cahaba Stable's Class Real Rock has a seemingly insurmountable lead on his fellow 3-year-old steeplechasers for divisional honors and looks to sew up the title in Sunday's supporting feature.
The gelding enters the $25,000 Raymond G. Woolfe Memorial for 3-year-olds with $30,500 in earnings, based in large part to his victory in the Gladstone at Far Hills, and with Orebanks ($15,000) passing on the race, Class Real Rock has more than triple the bankroll of his closest competition, Woolfe rivals Miss Crown ($9,400), barn mate Class Bopper ($9,000) and Imperial Way ($6,000). To upset the division, one of the four pursuers must win the Woolfe and the $25,000 3-year-old race at Palm Beach Nov. 29 and hope Class Real Rock finishers worse than second at least once to have a shot at winning the championship.
A homebred son of Rock Point, Class Real Rock made six starts on the flat for trainer Lilith Boucher before making his hurdle debut at Middleburg Oct. 5. Bottled up for much of the running, he rallied late to finish fourth, 10 1/4 lengths behind Orebanks but beaten just two heads for second. In the Gladstone he turned the tables on his rival, rallying from seventh to take charge in the lane and hold off Orebanks by a length under Matt McCarron, who has the return call in the Woolfe.
Class Real Rock's main competition could come from another Mede Cahaba homebred, stablemate Class Bopper (Richard Boucher, 148), who was leading the Gladstone before ducking off course upon entering the stretch. The son of Bop also got some seasoning on the flat, running seven times for Lilith Boucher before launching his hurdle debut at Morven Park Oct. 11. Showing maturity beyond his years Class Bopper went flag-to-wire over older maidens to score by 1 1/4 lengths in an effort that signaled much promise.
Miss Crown (Bernie Dalton, 142), checked in fifth behind Orebanks at Middleburg, but was part of the four-way place photo for owner-trainer Kate Dalton. The daughter of High Yield was another who exited that race to win in her next start, taking an open maiden at Aiken Oct. 25.
Henry Rathbun's Imperial Way (Padge Whelan, 148) has shown talent in his two hurdle starts, running third behind Orebanks at Middleburg and then third, beaten 3 1/2 lengths by Class Real Rock at Far Hills. The Tom Voss-trainee has made improvement in both starts should again make his presence felt at Camden.
Quick Now (Roderick Mackenzie, 148), Diva Maria (Xavier Aizpuru, 142), Rusty Reign (Robbie Walsh, 148), Praise Me (Young, 148), Factor Five (Will Haynes, 148), Pleasant Top (Dowling, 148) complete the field for the Woolfe Memorial.
BUBBLE ECONOMY GOES FOR RECORD
The $20,000 Springdale may not be the most well-known timber event on the calendar, but Sunday's third race takes on some added significance this year. Arcadia Stable's Bubble Economy, who has already clinched his second timber championship, goes for a little more glory as he attempts to set a single-season earnings record.
With $98,250 in the bank, Bubble Economy sits just $3,750 behind the $102,000 Irish Prince earned last year, and can clinch the record with a win or a second in the 3 1/2-mile contest. With such accomplished runners as Ravens Rock, Woodmont, Twill Do, He's A Conniver, Scuba Steve, Patriot's Path and Shady Valley all signed on it won't be easy. Leading jockey Xavier Aizpuru takes the riding assignment on Bubble Economy for trainer Jack Fisher.
The six-race card also includes a $25,000 Sport of Kings maiden hurdle, a $20,000 starter-allowance and a 1 1/2-mile training flat race for amateur riders. Post time is set for 12:30 p.m., with the Colonial Cup carded as the fourth race.